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Contrite Post #1: Final Exams May 16, 2008

Posted by Will Thomas in History 174.
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I’m off to the always enjoyable Princeton-Harvard Physics History PhunDay tomorrow–a real model for what a workshop should be. Today’s post, however, comes amid correcting final exams for History 174, and my realization that, while my course’s design seems to have produced some good, improved writing (big thanks to my TA for working with students, reading drafts, revisions, etc.), it seems to have primarily been an exercise in self-education. Indeed, I learned a lot! I wish I’d have had a chance to have taken my course at some point, taught by someone with a better established knowledge of the subject matter than myself.

However, it’s painfully clear that I torpedoed my undergrad students. Everything coming back to me on the exam IDs is all about what so-and-so discovered, or what they’re famous for, or how something changed the world, or something, without picking up on trends and narratives and the like. In other words, what I wanted them to learn registered, but got echoed back cloaked in the language of pop-history. It’s pretty clear there’s not much in the way of “superlunary” ideas about how science works; in fact, I’d say they don’t think about it much at all. It’s more just trying to figure out who the “notables” are.

Even more disappointing are the essays, which, except for some good answers on my Bacon vs. Descartes question, are almost all BS. It’s clear the readings weren’t touched too much. All-in-all no one paid much attention. I attribute this to students having other priorities–if they’d paid attention more than intermittently, they’d have surely done better. But, at the same time, I could have focused more tightly on certain ideas, and repeated them, and hammered them home to get students interested.

So, lessons definitely learned. I structured the course in such a way that students were exposed to all kinds of historical threads from which they could choose what they were most interested in. Several who kept up really, really liked this approach. I’m glad that they were so drawn in. But most just seem to have gotten lost. Who’s to say they would have gotten more out of the course had I used another approach, since many are just science majors fulfilling a requirement? Still, you just can’t teach a course of 77 kids for the benefit of 5.

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